Philadelphia Gay News prepares to take legal action for Morris records

(Philadelphia Gay News photo).

By Tim Cwiek

As the 18th anniversary of Nizah Morris’ death approaches, PGN is preparing to take legal action in order to obtain records relating to the trans woman’s death that city officials thus far have declined to produce.

Morris, a beloved trans advocate, was discovered with a fatal head injury shortly after receiving a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police in the Gayborhood. She died on Dec. 24, 2002. The following day, her death was declared a homicide due to blunt-force head trauma.

Officers Elizabeth Skala and Thomas Berry are the last known persons to be in Morris’ presence prior to her head wound. The movements of Kenneth Novak — another officer who was dispatched to investigate Morris due to severe intoxication — remain unclear during the time that Morris was killed.

All three officers remain on the city payroll, receiving an annual salary of $77,481. None of them has been charged with any wrongdoing in the Morris case.

In May 2008, Common Pleas Judge Jane C. Greenspan signed a “stipulated order,” mandating transparency in the Morris case. Various city agencies — including the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Police Advisory Commission — were supposed to contribute Morris records to a reconstructed Morris homicide file. A reconstructed file was necessary because the police department lost its original Morris homicide file in 2003.

In 2008, PGN’s former attorneys were led to believe all existing Morris records were deposited in the reconstructed file. However, several years later, when the PAC reopened its Morris probe, it was discovered that numerous Morris records at the DA’s Office weren’t deposited in the reconstructed file.

In May 2017, when DA Larry Krasner was running for office, he was asked whether he would release Morris records at the DA’s Office. “Assuming that the family of Nizah Morris wanted the information revealed and assuming the law permitted it, I would like there to be the maximum amount of transparency and I would like to assist in getting all information out about that incident,” Krasner told PGN.

But thus far, PGN’s efforts to obtain additional Morris records at the DA’s Office have been unavailing. The additional records include interviews with Novak, Berry, Skala and a police supervisor.

In May 2020, PGN retained the Edelstein Law Firm to assist with enforcement of the Morris court order. The firm sent two demand letters to the DA’s Office and Philadelphia Law Department requesting production of the outstanding records. Neither letter has brought about the release of additional Morris records.

On Dec. 4, a spokesperson for the DA’s Office issued the following statement: “That court order [signed by Greenspan] was issued 12 years ago in a case that did not involve the District Attorney’s Office. As such, it does not apply to [PGN’s] request.”

Attorneys at the city’s Law Department — which was supposed to oversee the production of Morris documents for the reconstructed file — didn’t respond to demand letters sent by Edelstein Law Firm.

Andrew J. Thomson, an attorney with Edelstein Law Firm, said the firm is considering legal action to access the additional Morris records. “I’m disappointed that the DA’s Office refuses to release more information to the public to help solve the crime against Ms. Morris and allow her family and her memory to be at peace,” Thomson told PGN.

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney involved in prior litigation for access to Morris records at the DA’s Office, also expressed disappointment with the agency. “I’m extremely saddened that nothing seems to change at the D.A.’s Office in the Nizah Morris case, despite a court order for transparency,” Robinette told PGN. “This year should have taught us about the need for accountability with respect to police conduct. It’s in the public interest — after so many years — to release the requested information and hold public officials accountable. Officers of the Philadelphia Police Department were the last known people to see Nizah Morris before she became a homicide victim. One would think Mr. Krasner would be eager to produce the requested records and clear the air, if these officers aren’t responsible for the death of Nizah Morris.”

Tim Cwiek is a reporter with the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.